Feedback
News

Tense Relations Between Cops, Prosecutors Fall Out From Freddie Gray Cases

Brian Rice

Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice, center, arrives at Courthouse East Tuesday, July 5, 2016 in Baltimore for a pretrial hearing related to the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. Rice's lawyers said Tuesday that he has chosen to be tried instead by a judge, the same one who acquitted two fellow officers in Freddie Gray's death. Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun / via AP

When Baltimore prosecutors gave their closing arguments Thursday in the case against Lieutenant Brian Rice, the highest ranking officer charged in the killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, the statements highlighted the painfully obvious strained relationship between that office and Baltimore police.

Rice's trial, much like those of officers Edward Nero, Caesar Goodson and William Porter have been short and full of acrimonious back and forth between the Baltimore prosecutors' office which has felt stymied by a failure to net convictions and the city's police which has felt unfairly besieged.

During closing arguments on Thursday, the state questioned the truthfulness of Nero and Porter pointing out that while the cops testified the van in which Gray was riding was shaking, witnesses said and video showed the van was not shaking.

"You have to pick if you'll believe either Officer Porter or Officer Nero's testimony," Prosecutor Michael Schatzow told the court.

Many legal experts argue that it is becoming more and more apparent that perhaps an independent prosecutor would have alleviated the acrimony fueled by these trials. That person would conduct an independent investigation and an independent assessment of how to move forward without having to deal with the after effects.

Read More: Why Freddie Gray Case Could Make or Break Marilyn Mosby

“In this case, it would have been a much better idea if an independent prosecutor was brought in,” said David Jaros, a professor at University of Baltimore Law School. When a case is this political and it’s difficult to discern political concerns from the merits of the case, bringing an outside party who is dispassionate and removed from the situation is beneficial, he said.

Image: Lt. Brian W. Rice
Lt. Brian W. Rice is pictured in this undated booking photo provided by the Baltimore Police Department. via Reuters

Rice’s fate will soon be revealed after only four days of testimony. Nero and Goodson were acquitted and Porter’s case resulted in a mistrial.

And with each trial, the curtain has been pulled back, further revealing how broken down the relationship between Baltimore prosecutors and police has become since State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s decision to charge six officers in the death of Freddie Gray.

Mosby's decision not only to prosecute these officers but to have her office undertake the investigation and trial was seen by legal experts as highly unusual.

It's also a decision many viewed with skepticism due to the inherent conflict of interest of going after police who are often seen as partners in law enforcement.

“Even if there isn’t bias, there may be appearance of bias because cops and prosecutors work so closely together,” said Angela Davis, a professor at the American University School of Law.

Image: US-CRIME-POLICE-RACISM-COURT
Baltimore County Sheriffs officers gather after Baltimore Officer Caesar Goodson Jr. was acquitted of all charges in his murder trial for the death of Freddie Gray at the Mitchell Court House June 23, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

The working relationship between the police and prosecutors is usually tight and the offices frequently rely on one another as allies to undertake the nitty gritty of crime fighting.

“They are on the same team” and are “working towards the same overall goal,” says David Gray, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. Officers investigate cases and bring them to the prosecutors to take to court, he said.

But in this case “natural allegiances became reversed and those who are normally aligned found themselves on opposite sides,” Gray said.

When it comes to police misconduct cases, “one tool is to ask for an independent prosecutor” so that local prosecutors can take themselves out of a highly political equation, Gray said. An equation that can not only give the perception of bias but one that can also sour a working relationship.

Baltimore Officer Found Not Guilty in Death of Freddie Gray 2:05

This became clear in the Goodson trial when Schatzow cross-examined the lead detective in Gray’s death, Dawnyell Taylor.

His first question was if she had a problem with prosecutor Janice Bledsoe, who was also trying the case. Schatzow went on to accuse Taylor of “sabotaging” their case by fabricating notes that would help the defense.

Taylor fired back by questioning not only the prosecutor’s “integrity” but also calling out prosecutor Bledsoe, for “acting like a child” throwing a “tantrum” and “storming out of the room” during a meeting where the two were supposed to share evidence.

Read More: Cops Awaiting Trial in Freddie Gray Case Want Charges Dismissed

The dirty laundry continued to air out in the Rice trial when prosecutors called into question the memory and truthfulness of officers during cross examination.

Prosecutor Janice Bledsoe cross-examined Officer Zachary Novak on whether there was a crowd on the scene when he arrived as backup. Novak, who was not charged, testified that he'd seen a crowd of 10-15 people near the police van when he arrived yelling.

Bledsoe played surveillance video of that scene and told him his story didn't match what the screen shows. "I see six people [in the video]," Novak said. "Maybe six," she responded sarcastically.

Baltimore still mending after Gray death 4:41

However, Mosby’s decision did bring about some benefit on a larger scale, Jaros said.

It did send a national message that local prosecutors will not and should not shy away from charging and trying their own —even at the cost of that relationship. In Baltimore, it restored assurance for a lot of residents who did not have confidence in a fair justice system, he said.

Nonetheless, it came at a cost.

"It did undermine a critical working relationship," he said.

Mosby is being sued by three of the officers charged for a gamut of causes, including false arrest, false imprisonment and defamation.

But perhaps the best solution is to completely remove the decision whether to charge an officer from the hands of local prosecutors and put it onto the legislature, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee.

Take them out of the equation and there are no bad feelings on either side, he said.

Cohen introduced legislation that would mandate independent prosecutors in cases of deadly force by police officers. Under the bill, states that don’t comply by not bringing in an outside prosecutor would lose out on certain federal police funding.

Brian Rice
Baltimore Police Lt. Brian Rice, center, arrives at Courthouse East Tuesday, July 5, 2016 in Baltimore for a pretrial hearing related to the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. Rice's lawyers said Tuesday that he has chosen to be tried instead by a judge, the same one who acquitted two fellow officers in Freddie Gray's death. Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun / via AP

“These agencies have a hand and glove relationship,” Cohen told NBC News. “When they are on opposite ends it causes a fracture, a schism in that relationship that is bad for the public,” he said. Bringing in someone from the outside, no questions asked, will resolve a lot of the repercussions that stem when local prosecutors undertake police misconduct cases, he said.

It will lessen any question of objectivity and reduce aftershocks in a working relationship, he said.

In Baltimore, the collapse of the relationship between two intricate and important agencies further fueled the debate as to whether this case was warranted, Jaros said, but ultimately “the public were the ones who lost when that relationship broke down.”